La Conquistadora (Santa Fe, New Mexico)

The Spaniards fled to what is now the El Paso/Juárez area, carrying with them a revered three-foot wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin that would later be named La Conquistadora.

Ellen McCracken
UC Santa Barbara

Historian Fray Angélico Chávez (1910-1996) dresses La Conquistadora in a 1952 photo by Laura Gilpin.

Historian Fray Angélico Chávez (1910-1996) dresses La Conquistadora in a 1952 photo by Laura Gilpin.

Often not recounted in textbooks, a key event in North American history is the 1680 Pueblo Revolt in which Native Americans in what is now northern New Mexico attacked the Spanish colonizers and expelled them. The Spaniards fled to what is now the El Paso/Juárez area, carrying with them a revered three-foot wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin that would later be named La Conquistadora. Insisting that their conquest of the Americas was a holy war, Spaniards carried representations of various Virgins into battle with them such as the Virgin of Guadalupe from Extremadura and Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. The statue of the Virgin in Santa Fe had come to the area in 1625, named in turn Our Lady of the Assumption, Our Lady of the Conception, and Our Lady of the Rosary. Succeeding generations of Hispanos in Santa Fe re-named the statue to correlate with various Church doctrines as they were proclaimed, and with their current popular devotions. From the beginning of its presence in northern New Spain, the small wooden statue was overlain with a series of changing titular signifiers designed to affix singular meaning to a polysemous visual material sign.Now, in 1680, the statue would assist the exiles to re-conquer northern New Mexico for New Spain and thereafter be called La Conquistadora. In 1692, after twelve years of exile, Don Diego de Vargas made an exploratory journey north to Santa Fe and met peacefully with the Native Americans who had re-taken their land. One year later in 1693, however, he returned with the statue of the Virgin and military troops for a bloody re-conquest of the area. He set up an altar for La Conquistadora outside the town, praying for assistance in battle. The Spaniards overpowered the native peoples and continued to control the area until Mexican Independence, followed by the U.S. takeover during the Mexican-American War (1846-48).The small statue that according to tradition helped the Spanish to defeat the Native Americans in the 1693 Reconquest remains revered in the city to this day. It has become a site of sometimes contradictory overlays of signification in which various groups battle for representation and to control the statue’s meaning. It is enthroned in a side chapel of the Cathedral/Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe in a beautiful altar screen designed and constructed by key Hispano intellectual Fray Angélico Chávez in 1957. ([image 1]). The statue is carried in a procession each June to Rosario Chapel, the site of De Vargas’ 1693 encampment, where a week-long novenario ensues. Local Hispanos have designed and sewn some 300 gowns and mantels for the statue, following in the tradition of vestimentary semiotic overlay practiced by their ancestors. The Cofradía of La Conquistadora which Chávez helped to revive in the late 1940s regularly changes the statue’s garments according to seasons, feasts, and special occasions.[image 2] Men of the Caballeros de Vargas guard the statue both literally and honorifically, and the Archbishop presides at special Masses and processions featuring the statue. [image 3].

But what about the Native Americans whose ancestors were defeated in the Reconquest? Each year in August during the large Indian Market in the Santa Fe plaza, a special Indian Mass is held in the Cathedral. Local Native American women such as Dolores Trujillo of Cochiti design and sew Native-style dresses and mantels for the statue to wear during Indian Market. [image 4]. Native dancing, chants, and liturgical readings in the Pueblo languages are included in the Mass, and the statue, dressed in the special attire, is prominently displayed next to the main altar. Complex identity formations are at work as some contemporary Native Americans participate in reconfiguring the meaning of the statue that was used to conquer their ancestors, anchoring their preferred semiosis from among the many available signifieds of the visual object. They, in effect, add their desired “caption” to the polysemous figure, engaging in what Roland Barthes termed anchorage.In an attempt to secure ideological closure over the various meanings overlain on the statue, officials of the Catholic Church renamed it Our Lady of Peace–a 180 degree turn from the longstanding appellation, La Conquistadora. Aware of the contradictions in the deeply held devotion of Hispanos to the statue that their forbears employed in 1693 to violently retake what is now northern New Mexico, Church officials believe that a name change will anchor the statue’s polysemy differently. The longstanding name, however, has not receded, as thousands of Hispanos devotedly revere the statue of their ancestors, still spiritually meaningful to them today.Since 1625 various groups of Hispanos, Native Americans, and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church have re-inscribed their history of exile, displacement, and conquest on the statue and struggled for interpretive closure of this polysemous sign. The statue is the site of multiple narrative codes, ideological struggles, and efforts to secure isotopic readings as people construct micro- and macro-narratives through spatial and vestimentary visual codes. The predominantly visual nature of the statue’s material presence facilitates the superimposition of a number of competing discourses that co-exist in both harmonious and conflicting constellations of historic displacement and recovery.

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  1. Santa Fe - Full Van Fun - […] realistic.  Our favorite part was the historic Capilla de La Conquistadora which featured the La Conquistadora – Our Lady of Peace statue.…

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